Setting: an unofficial introduction to art history

Not all works have a setting. This doesn’t, for instance.


But many do, and where they are present they are important. Settings in art can be thought of much the same as settings in film: they are on one hand the backdrop to the action, but they also inform and influence how the viewer perceives that action. A fight in an idyllic garden will be interpreted very differently than one in a filthy, concrete-filled abandoned factory.

Symbols relevant to the work are often included in the setting. It may also serve to make its subject recognisable, to encourage the viewer’s empathy by placing the subject in a place they know, to emphasise a particular aspect of the subject by either contrasting or reflecting its theme.

The setting can be a place for symbols, but it can also itself be symbolic. Return to the idyllic garden: its connotations effect the tenor of the whole work. Likewise the abandoned factory.

In landscape the setting itself is the main subject, and so must be interpreted as such. Other works deliberately omit the setting to ensure the viewer focusses wholly on the subject. Still others, like abstract works, require no setting. Some artists sit halfway in between and reduce the setting to a backdrop of colour or cloth. In statuary (though not relief) only few elements of the setting may be included – extraneous elements are absent, and what the artist has bothered to include must therefore be paid significant attention to. Whatever kind of setting a work has – or hasn’t – the general rule is that if it’s included, it’s included for a reason. So if you think it’s relevant, go ahead and interpret it as such.

However, the setting of a work is generally very secondary to the main subject. It supports the themes and message of the whole, but in most cases it is not the primary communicator. It is simply one part of many.

featured image: Rothko.


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